The Tennessee Titans and San Francisco 49ers are two teams trending in opposite directions.
San Francisco has won five of its last six games — including victories over three current playoff teams — and the 49ers have shot up from bottom-of-the-barrel NFC team to the conference’s No. 6 seed since Week 10.
Despite outgaining opponents 1,356 yards to 944 over its last four games, Tennessee has lost three of those contests, and since Week 10, the Titans have fallen from the AFC’s No. 1 seed down to third and holding on by a thread.
A loss to the 49ers on Thursday, and the Titans could be looking up in the standings at the Bengals or Chargers.
“When you lose late in the year, that is kind of what happens,” Titans head coach Mike Vrabel said. “You have to be playing your best football late in the year. ... This will be a huge week to try and improve mentally. We won’t be able to do much physically. You have to prepare to win a game against a great opponent and a great challenge who have won five of their last six games.”
The Titans are running into the 49ers at entirely the wrong time. San Francisco is 5-2 since the beginning of November and averaging 27.5 points per game.
Over that span, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has quietly put together an impressive seven-week stretch, passing for 1,744 yards, 12 touchdowns and just four interceptions while completing 70.1 percent of his passes. He has a passer rating of 100 or better in five of those games.
During their streak, 49ers receiver Deebo Samuel has been racking up all-purpose yards, contributing 269 yards receiving, 247 yards rushing and scoring seven total touchdowns. Tight end George Kittle has also looked near unstoppable in his last three games, totaling 28 receptions, 425 yards and three touchdowns.
Titans’ defensive coordinator Shane Bowen has his work cut out for him on Thursday.
“They’re using Deebo a lot,” Bowen said. “And that’s what coaches do — find ways to get ball in the best hands of their ballplayers. With that comes a whole different set of circumstances you’ve got to deal with, just based on where they’re placing guys. It’s the challenge of multiple formations, with different players in different spots that are unconventional.”
Here’s a further look at Thursday’s matchup:
Why the Titans can win
These are certainly big ifs, but if one of A.J. Brown or Julio Jones — or both — can suit up on Thursday, the Titans offense goes from one-dimensional to suddenly explosive.
No disrespect to Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, but Ryan Tannehill has essentially been throwing to a practice squad receiver group over the past month, and adding one or both of Brown and Jones adds at least the threat of the big play that no opposing defense has had to worry about from the Titans in a while.
The way D’Onta Foreman has been running the ball lately — two 100-yards outings in his last three games — if the Titans can throw the ball down the field and avoid WR screens and check-down throws, they might be able to stretch a 49ers defense that hasn’t really been challenged all that much by the threat of a deep ball since Week 9 against Arizona. In that game, San Francisco allowed five passes longer than 20 yards, including three of 30 yards or more.
Why the 49ers can win
San Francisco is the kind of defense the Titans don’t want to see right now.
The 49ers are great at two things: getting into the backfield and taking the ball away. They are tied for the 10th-most sacks (36) in the NFL and have the second-most tackles for loss (75) and third-most fumbles caused (11).
“They are all punching the ball out,” Tannehill said. “Their front is obviously one of the best in the league. They are penetrating, getting after the quarterback, collapsing the pocket, so you have to play really good ball.
“You realize you are not going to be able to sit back there and go to your fifth guy in your progression. You are going to have to be efficient, see the coverage, make a quick decision and get the ball out.”
The 49ers, who rank sixth in the NFL in total defense, boast one of the best pass rushes in the NFL, led by one of the best pass rushers in Nick Bosa, which doesn’t bode well for Tannehill, who’s been sacked the second-most times (41) of any QB and has lost the second-most yards due to sacks (290).
Bosa himself has 15 sacks and 18 tackles for loss, while Arden Key (5), Arik Armstead (3) and Samson Ebukam (2.5) round out a group of edge rushers that have combined for nearly 70 percent of San Francisco’s team sacks.
If the 49ers can get to Tannehill often, and put pressure on Tennessee’s offensive line, this could be an easy win for San Fran.
“The front, obviously all those defensive guys — [Bosa] is talented and plays extremely hard,” Vrabel said. “He has great balance. Quickness. He is very good against the run and against the pass. [Arik] Armstead has great length inside, unique. [D.J.] Jones has been really coming on as an interior player. It is a very attacking and penetrating front which we will have to try to be able to handle.”
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